Animal assisted therapy (AAT) has become the new buzzword in the field of mental health.
While animal assisted therapy was previously seen as an alternative treatment, it has become more main stream, and it’s now common to find animals in the therapy office, retirement community, and hospital.
All animals can provide love and friendship to those around them, but therapy animals are specially trained to be comfortable around people with disabilities, to not bite when startled, and to accept petting from people of all ages and conditions.
What is animal assisted therapy?
According to the Mayo Clinic, “pet therapy is a broad term that includes animal-assisted therapy and other animal-assisted activities. Animal-assisted therapy is a growing field that uses dogs or other animals to help people recover from or better cope with health problems, such as heart disease, cancer, and mental health disorders.”
Animal assisted therapy has been studied and proven to work with children who have experienced abuse or neglect and for people recovering from cancer and other diseases. It’s been shown to be effective with veterans and their families. Nursing homes, libraries, schools, and even prisons have had success with bringing trained animals in to help ease tension, provide support, and comfort. Animals are able to reach people in ways that nothing else can.
What makes animal assisted therapy work?
- Animals offer unconditional love. When someone struggles with depression, anxiety, grief, or loneliness, the world can seem a barren and hostile place. Animals can show a kindness and acceptance that bring healing. The simple act of petting a cat or dog lowers blood pressure and reduces tension.
- Animals can connect with people who have a difficult time connecting with people. This is particularly true for people with autism. A wonderful resource is ASDA, Autism Service Dogs of America. It is not only individuals with autism who benefit from animal assisted therapy. As a therapist, I use my therapy bird Eini to help connect with people and bring down emotional barriers that are often present. What makes Eini a great therapy animal is that he loves everyone. He is aware of those who are uncomfortable around him and at those times he stays with me.
- Animals help in a unique way. There is no judgement with an animal. A dog won’t roll his eyes when you are sobbing. He won’t tell you to get over it or give you unwanted advice. Animals have no expectations. If you want to sit in silence, they’re okay with this. If you want to talk and talk and talk, they will listen indefinitely.
- When combined with a trained therapist, therapy animals provide the best of two worlds: an animal to provide comfort, love, and a sense of calm, and a counselor to help work through the issues that come to the surface.
The connection between animals and humans has been present since the first wolves became companions to our ancestors tens of thousands of years ago.
As researchers grow in their understanding of what this connection can do and how it can help heal those in need, people will continue to seek out the healing relationship that our furred and feathered companions bring.